Thursday, August 15, 2013

Tomato Turmoil

Hovering over my treasure, I beamed as I revealed the latest garden loot to my husband.  “Know what these are?”  I asked. 
“Tomatoes” he replied nonchalantly.  Clearly, he wasn’t picking up on my infectious enthusiasm.
“Yes, but not just ANY tomatoes.  These are {pause for emphasis} Our First Tomatoes.”
He gestured towards a pile of rosy red spheres on the opposite counter.  “So what are those?” 
“Those are from Wanda’s garden.”
“And those?” he asked, pointing to a colander of bright orange cherry tomatoes. 
“Those are from Alicia.” 
“Mmm hmm.”

What my husband failed to recognize is the monumental significance of today’s garden haul.  I’ve spent the last two weeks wringing my hands over an entirely unripe tomato crop.  A plentiful harvest that refuses to ripen is more insulting than one lost to bugs or disease.  I should know…I’ve lived through all three forms of frustration.  With August well underway, I was beginning to suspect that I was falling victim to another green tomato tragedy. 

Gardeners are cut from warm and generous stock; the orange and red produce scattered throughout my kitchen bore testimony to that fact.  Unfortunately, they set off a little alert in the gardening cortex of my cerebellum.  “Why are everyone else’s tomatoes ripe?”  I had planted at least 5 different varieties, from two different sources, and spread them throughout the backyard.  None of them had shown so much as a shy blush until this morning.  Hence the hand-wringing.

Tomatoes, I am told, will ripen, given a long enough growing season, which Illinois certainly has.  The complex biochemistry percolating in those plant cells can be a touch sensitive, though.  Tomatoes prefer air temps below 85 degrees.  Any higher, and the plant shuts down its carotene and lycopene production, two components essential to the ripening process.  Resist the urge to fertilize: failing to ripen is not a nutritional deficiency.  Adding fertilizer could actually force the plant into a vegetative state, further slowing your fruit maturity.  No, the only solution is to wait.  I hate waiting.

But none of this emotional rollercoaster registered with Tall, Dark and Handsome.  Aside from enjoying a slice on his cheeseburger, he’s not a tomato enthusiast.  For him, tomato season brings the pleasant tidings of salsa kisses and dragon breath emanating from his sweetheart and the onslaught of fruit flies in the kitchen.  Considering these enticing prospects, his response may be justified.  There is not, I’m sorry to say, much I can do about the salsa breath.  I write it off as collateral damage.   Homemade salsa for supper does not fresh morning breath make.   Add to that, salsa for breakfast and lunch as well, and sweet exhales are gone with the wind.

I have, however, had some success in controlling fruit flies this year.  After a particularly produce-laden purchase at Sam’s Club, I discovered a very effective homemade fruit fly trap.  In a cup, I put an apple slice and some vinegar.  I cut a small corner out of a sandwich bag and secured it over the cup with a rubber band.  It didn’t take long for the flies to find their new favorite restaurant.  Only trick is, finding their way out was considerably harder than finding their way in.  There are suggestions all over the internet for ‘fly enticements’.  Apparently the little drunkards like beer or wine, and heated apple cider vinegar draws them effectively as well.  This summer, don’t let those buggers put a damper on your harvest.  Bring on the tomatoes!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Milky Spore

Ah, August.  The season of sharpened pencils, shiny shoes, and first-day jitters.  And the harbinger of the collective germ pool shared amongst all those willing learners.  From the water fountain to the pencil sharpener, bacteria has a hey day.  With three grade-schoolers, I’m in the thick of germ warfare.  A daily lecture circuit escapes semi-unconsciously from my mouth:  “Wash your hands.” “Use a tissue!” “Stop licking your brother.”  Does it do any good?  Do they listen?  I don’t know.  We get our fair share of stomach viruses and strep throat.  I always say what we don’t pick up from the community basketball in P.E. we get from the shopping cart at Aldi’s. 

But thank goodness I’m not a grub mama.  As those little baby grubs wriggle off from home into the pitch-black underworld, they’re exposed to every imaginable germ.  How they can see what they’re eating?  Who knows?  And there’s clearly no hand-washing before meals.  One soil-borne germ in particular, milky spore, is deadly to grubs.  Oh, those poor mamas, the sleepless nights they must endure with such dangers lurking.  You may be more familiar with the parents of grubs these days: our iridescent summer visitor, the Japanese Beetle.  What?  Not feeling sympathetic?  I can relate. 

A creepy Grub family tree

I suppose beetles can’t help their behavior.  They’re just doing what comes naturally.  It isn’t their fault that we’ve planted all these delicious Linden trees and hollyhocks, roses and beans around our properties.  After all, if the tables were turned, would we behave differently?  If Willy Wonka’s dream came true, would we leave the candy grass, gumdrop flowers and chocolate river alone simply because they looked lovely?  One whiff of that cocoa current and my self-restraint would be taking a hike.  This, however, isn’t Wonka World, and I’m not here to make excuses for Japanese Beetles.  We have crops to grow and plants to protect from the appetite of these destructive creatures, which brings me back to the milky spore germ.

It’s important to clarify what Milky Spore (Bacillus popillae) is not.  It is not a quick fix.  Yes, I know you’re worried about the marigolds the beetles are currently feasting on, but Milky Spore is not that kind of a fix.  It does not instantly kill beetle like Sevin.  This is a gradual population-control product.  I know I lost most of you on the word “gradual”, but hear me out.  This bacteria attacks the future generations that will be overwintering in and emerging from your soil next spring.  It’s like taking out an airfield instead of just shooting bombers out of the sky.  You’re hitting them at their population source.  Milky spore is applied in one season, and the resulting control can last upwards of 20 years. 

The product works like so: after being eaten by a grub, the bacterial spores have nothing short of a cataclysmic orgy.  The resulting exponential growth results in billions of new bacterial spores.   And we thought rabbits were bad!  The inner fluid of the grub, or hemolymph, is so saturated with spores by the time it dies that it turns white, hence the milky nomer.  Therein lies the catch-22: for the bacterial population to grow, it requires live grubs to percolate it’s population.   Meaning, if you don’t have a good infestation of Japanese Beetle grubs, the product won’t flourish well.

Milky spore is available in a powder form in most garden centers.  Spread it on your lawn while temperatures are still warm.  Spore development is optimized when the soil temperatures are between 60 and 70 degrees farenheit.  I found a 40 oz package of powder for $70 on Amazon.  Certainly not cheap, but if you divide the cost of the investment over the span of 10-20 years, it’s a bit easier to swallow. 

Wednesday, July 31, 2013


Aside from zapping the occasional bag of frozen broccoli, my microwave doesn’t see much action.  Today, however, it is buzzing along at warp speed as I crank out batch after batch of applesauce. 

Three pails of transparent apples, fresh from Grandma’s farmyard, kick-started this production.  In summertime, my family doles out garden currency like lottery winnings.

After asking my folks for a favor last weekend, my typically generous father replied, “It’s gonna cost you.” 
“How much?” I asked. 
“Three buckets of apples.” 
You’ve heard of reverse mortgages?  This is a reverse payment.  My cost would be taking three buckets of apples off my father’s hands. 

Everything my parents grow goes to excess.  If I’ve inherited this trait, my zucchini clearly can’t decipher the DNA analysis.  Creeping Charlie, on the other hand… 
Each June, my mom and dad swim in strawberries, while July ushers in the triple-threat of cherries, sweet corn and transparent apples.  August through October is a tomato tsunami, with some peaches and apples thrown in for variety.  In most circles, excess is desirable.  Use what you want, share what you can, compost the rest. 

But at the top of this family tree hovers a 92-year-old wisp of a workhorse.  On the eve of Grandma’s 9th birthday, the stock exchange crashed, plunging this country into the Great Depression.  Her farm girl lifestyle was already one of frugal economy, but the state of the country colored her perspective of ‘plenty’ for a lifetime.  There is no sin or crime so great that it can overshadow the wastefulness of an unused harvest.  She pushes herself to make use of any food that comes her way.   Her freezer is loaded with quart upon quart of fruits and vegetables, just waiting to be handed off to a needy family. 

What she can’t use comes our way.  And the transparent apple tree is dropping its harvest in her yard.  So 84 years after the Great Depression, I’m standing in my kitchen with an overflowing bowl of peels and cores for proof of its effect.  Waste not, want not: a lesson our generation has yet to learn. 

Transparent apples are the earliest of apples, and they look it.   Their green skin looks decidedly unripe and perfectly mature fruits can be pretty small.  Some of the apples on my counter are the size of a small peach, although there are plenty of big ones to compensate.  They sport an intense Granny Smith-esque tartness with a soft texture.  Not my favorite for fresh eating, but incomparable for applesauce-making. 

They are relatively unknown for two reasons.  First, it’s hard to get them to market.  Once off the tree, they age quickly and bruise easily.  Secondly, their unique properties (tart and mushy) set them apart for baking and cooking.  For the majority of the population, cracking open a jar of Mott’s is considerably easier than making your own applesauce.  However, the process of making it is simple and takes less than a half hour.  Most importantly, our tastebuds will thank you. 

Grandma’s Applesauce

1.  Fill a 2 qt. container ¾ full of peeled, sliced apples.
2.  Add 2 T. water and cover with plastic wrap.
3.  Microwave for 5 minutes on high.
4.  Stir.
5.  Cook 2-5 minutes more.  The mixture can boil over, so watch closely. 
6.  Whip with a whisk and add sugar (to taste) while sauce is warm.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Million Dollar View

Tassels emerging
Geographically speaking, cornfields aren’t considered a highly desirable view to the general public.   Travellers whiz obliviously past acres and acres of this certifiable national treasure, eager to get on to more exciting vistas.  Realtors could attest to the number of homebuyers seeking views of mountains, oceans, lakes and metropolitan skylines, but cornfields?  Not even on the radar.  Even homegrown tourism commercials confirm this theory.  A catchy phrase like “Visit Illinois!” is followed by video clips of hiking trails, theme parks, waterfalls and of course, The City.  The majestic crop that covers most of our state, however, has been conspiratorially left out. 

Neither the farmers nor the corn care, though.  They don’t stage protests or launch lawsuits for the acclaim they deserve.  They’re content to live quietly, fueling the cars and people that go revving around in search of that million-dollar view. 

Maybe it’s because I’m a farmer’s daughter.  Maybe it’s because I grew up eating sweet corn like cookies.  Maybe it’s because green is my favorite color.  Who knows?  But I love cornfields.  I love the potential they hold when they’re empty, the hope exuded as they sprout, the lushness of the deep green ribbon-leaves as they soak up the July sun, and the rustle of golden stalks on a windy day in October. 

But to truly appreciate this crop, one must understand it.  Growing corn is a complicated, chancy venture.  Having invested huge sums of money, time, and labor into this agricultural gamble, farmers monitor crop development closely.   

When people go into a vegetative state, that’s not good.  Plants in a vegetative state: completely different story.  It means they’re focusing all of their resources on growing.  “As opposed to what?” one might ask.  “Aren’t they always growing?”  When corn reaches a certain level of development, it turns its attention towards romantic ventures.  This is known as the reproductive state.

The ear tosses out her golden hair (silks)

Corn growth is classified within these two states.  The vegetative states are measured by the number of leaf collars visible.  But once the male tassel emerges, Al Green starts crooning and the stalk starts setting the mood.  The first reproductive state is silking, which occurs a few days after the tassels appear.  Translucent, feminine strands of seduction emerge from the cornhusk, waiting expectantly for the tassel to notice them.  They are receptive to pollen for 10-14 days, but the tassel is not as easily turned on.  If it is too hot, or too cold, too wet or too dry, the tassel will not release its pollen.  Most people assume that planting and harvest are the most anxious times for farmers, and they are.  But pollination’s crucial time and elemental requirements cause many rural blood pressures to rise as well.  Without successful pollination, their yield will be poor. 

After silking, comes the blister stage, in which the ear will be loaded with white kernels resembling - you guessed it - blisters!  Then comes my favorite phase: the milk stage.  Kernels, plump with a milky liquid, develop their characteristic golden hue.  This is the stage at which sweet corn is harvested.  Frosted with melting butter and sprinkled with salt, those milky kernels make a tasty July delicacy.  Sweet corn’s developmental stages end here, on my dinner plate.

For field corn, though, the adventure continues for three more phases.  Field corn is sometimes referred to as yellow gold.  It is used to make ethanol, animal feed and corn starch, oil and syrup, just as you would suppose.  But did you know that it is also used to make soap, paint, linoleum, pharmaceuticals, insulation and batteries?  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  Corn is an incredibly valuable plant.

In its dough phase, the inner liquid thickens to a pasty consistency.  Then, as fall approaches, the fields enter the dent stage.  The drying kernels now exhibit their characteristic dimple.  Physiological maturity - corn’s final stage - arrives when an abscission layer has formed at the base of the ear.  This essentially loosens the ear and prepares it to be released from the stalk.  Farmers wait for kernels to dry to approximately 20% moisture before revving up their combines.  When the moisture meter hits the magic number, the harvesters roll out, reaping thousands of bushels of yellow gold.  In this country girl’s opinion, that’s a million dollar view.    

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Outdoor Bouquets

Crystal vases brimming with long-stemmed roses never did much for me.  Tall, Dark, and Handsome figured that out in the early years of our marriage, tucked his wallet back in his pocket, and saved a bundle at florists.
Mom's Springtime Farm Snippings

I grew up around Mason jars chock full of hand-snipped blossoms, fresh from my mother’s extensive garden.  From the glass rim, a riot of colors burst forth, celebrating nature with carnival flair, Daylilies and Beebalm hawking for attention in all directions.  4-H offered a floral design course, and I spent summer afternoons in Marilyn Tanner’s basement, learning the ins and outs of floral foam and frogs.  She taught a handful of girls to create line and mass designs with accessible plants such as Hosta, Chives, Iris and Peonies, arranging them into fleeting objets d’ art.  We soaked our creations in homemade floral preservative, a solution of hot water, sugar and a splash of Clorox. 

A few years later, as a cash-strapped college student, I gladly took a job in the U of I floral design lab.  I prepped gallons of floral preservative, cleaned and trimmed thousands of mums from South America and picked bushels of Alstroemeria in the university green house. 

After years of picking and snipping, prepping and arranging, I haven’t a single bouquet in my house.   Our sweet daisy of a daughter is allergic to nearly all things bearing pollen, a twist of irony for her horticulturist mama.  So, for now, the bouquets lie on the other side of the window, dancing in the breeze and soaking up the sun. 

Container plantings, with their artistic bones, are the perfect candidate for outdoor bouquets.  Each May, I make my annual hunting expedition to Sunrise Nursery in Grant Park.  I wander for hours through the greenhouses, tracking container companions with just the right marriage of color and texture.  This year, shortly after arriving, a cloud of blue and purple caught my eye.  An ethereal mix of petunias and lobelia had been artfully arranged in a hanging basket.  My frugal nerve twitched.  Pre-planted containers are pricier than building your own.  I mentally added up all the Andrew Jackson’s my husband had saved at florists and justified this as a reasonable expense.  It was, after all, a long-lasting bouquet I would enjoy for months, rather than weeks. 

I hung my cloud of glory just outside our dining room window, and sighed with delight at each glimpse, as the purple and blue blossoms mingled together and drifted down from the basket.  Within a couple of weeks, however, I noticed my cloud evaporating a smidge.  I pulled it off the hook and set it on my porch table.  It cheered a bit, and I concluded the wind had been too harsh on the hook.  But over the next month, the basket continued to dwindle.  I watered it more.  Then I watered it less.  I fertilized.  I moved it to different locations.  Nothing helped.  By July, the ragged remnant was clearly on life support.  I bumped it as I moved it to yet another location and got a shock.  A small army of earwigs dropped like paratroopers from a helicopter.  My Earwig Assault Training kicked into action and I immediately began performing a robust tap dance on the fleeing pincher bugs.  (Don’t you wish you were my neighbor?)  Public humiliation be damned, this was war.  I bumped it again, and the 2nd Armed Division of Pincher bugs erupted.  A third bump, and I was beginning to wonder if there was an earwig factory inside my fading cloud of glory.  Good thing Tall, Dark and Handsome built a sturdy porch for his family, because I stomped up a storm all over it.  Sammy Davis Jr. would’ve been impressed. 

No bouquets inside.  Buggy bouquets outside.  What’s a gardener to do?  I can rationalize that I enjoyed my hanging basket longer than a typical bouquet, but I still feel the inclination to pout.  After a little pity party, I’ll pick myself up, brush the earwigs off, and go plant some fall pea seeds.   I’ve got to keep my little bug buddies well fed!

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Night Lights

Summer bedtimes are an oxymoron in the Uftring household.  The 9 p.m. standard quickly gets stretched to 10 and beyond as the summer sun drags its feet across the western sky.  After nine months of marching to the rigid beat of the school bell’s cadence, this lax lifestyle is just what the doctor ordered. 

So it wasn’t with much surprise that I found my daughter playing in the sandbox well after sunset.  It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re building a sandy empire.  As I opened the door to call her in, I noticed the night air was lighting up hypnotically with incandescent flashes.  Firefly season had arrived.  No point in calling her in with all that magic buzzing around.  A few minutes invested in an old-fashioned firefly hunt would get her to bed faster than an argument over the time.  I headed to the china cabinet where we store such valuables as Mason jars with hole-punched lids.  In less than ten minutes, she had two fireflies bedded down with some grass and parked on her dresser, summer’s natural night light.  

Fireflies aren’t flies at all.  They’re winged members of the glowworm family.  Don’t feel bad, I thought glowworms were just a figment of Hasbro’s imagination too.  Their ability to light themselves up, known as bioluminescence, is a talent they share with many marine animals.  In fact, 80 percent of the world’s bioluminescent creatures live underwater.  In their darkly aquatic world, the ability to glow serves to attract mates and meals, and shed a little light in a darkly aquatic world.   Each June and July, we get a glimpse of the world fathoms below as our little flashing friends light up the night. 

Fireflies swish together a cocktail of oxygen and luciferin in a complex reaction to crank up their taillights.  Scientists still don’t know how lightning bugs are able to turn their lights on and off on command, but they do know why they flash. 

Those flashes are a buggy Morse code, transmitting love notes from one firefly to another.  Surprisingly, there are 2,000 different types of lightning bugs, each blinking a different ‘language’.  The males cruise through the air, zigzagging here and there, looking for a lightning hot mama.  The girls wait patiently from a perch.  When they see the bug of their dreams, they blink back to him and the romance begins, most of the time.  But life amongst fireflies is not all fun and games.  In some cases, the blinking pattern is a diabolical subterfuge.  Photuris, a larger species, commonly mimics the lighting pattern of Photinus, a smaller species.  They aren’t in search of a love connection.  They’re looking for their evening meal.   When the smaller male or female responds to their call, dinner is served.

It seems that all fireflies would be easy prey, considering their high visibility in the night sky.  But predators, such as bats and toads, learn quickly that fireflies aren’t palatable.  Some species can ‘reflex bleed’, a process which allows them to shed a few drops of blood when in danger.  This taste-test of their toxic blood sends predators looking for a meal elsewhere. 

Fireflies buzz around on some interesting equipment.  They actually utilize a double set of wings.  The outer pair is held out rigidly, like plane wings, while the softer inner set beats to power their flight. 

Fireflies are a seasonal treat here in Illinois.  If you haven’t seen them yet, you may need to shut off some exterior lights, or take a field trip to a dark country field.  Fireflies can’t communicate with each other effectively where there are night lights, so they tend to avoid well-lit areas.   


I get a little anxious around blueberry time.  Blueberry delirium would be an apt diagnosis.  Once July hits, I start preparing for blueberry season mentally, which is a nice way of saying my salivary glands hit overdrive.  Several years back, on a particularly anxious July morning, I invited two friends and headed toward the nearest blueberry oasis, seven kids in tow.  Bruce Tammen, the owner, greeted us as we pulled in and delivered the news: I was a week early.   The regret I felt for dragging my friends out of town needlessly was nothing compared to the blueberry angst throbbing in my cerebellum.

If you’ve ever visited Tammen’s Treeberry Farm in Essex, you’ll be well aware that I’m not the only blueberry addict around.  Long after all the shaded parking lots are full, cars keep rolling through Tammen’s gates.  They line the dirt lane leading back out to Essex road, a quarter-mile hike for the last troopers in.  Pickers slather on sunscreen and bug spray, load up bags with blankets, hats and picnic lunches for a day amongst the blueberry bushes.  The hayrack ride out to the field affords plenty of opportunity to strike up conversations with fellow pickers.  It’s a diverse crew.  I’ve sat beside octogenarians, teenagers and newborns on their mama’s backs.  Most that I’ve met have driven two to three hours to pick there. 

Bruce and Becky Tammen have been up to their eyeballs in the berry business throughout their marriage.  Bruce’s father planted the first bushes when Bruce was just 13 years old.  A ‘few’ years later, the bushes stretch out for 40 miles of row.  That might be enough even for me.  They currently grow four varieties: Spartan, Blue Crop, Blue Ray and Nelson, each averaging 15-20 pounds of indigo deliciousness per plant. 

But growing blueberries isn’t all fun and games.  Bruce and Becky work hard to protect the plants from pests such as Blueberry Maggot flies and Japanese Beetles.  Beyond bugs, wild brush threatens to overwhelm their fields each year.  Keeping their crop pest free requires a lot of hands-on attention.  And then there’s the Illinois weather…

Last year’s broken climate threw most fruit crops into a tailspin.  Blueberries were no exception.  The Tammens watched helplessly as thousands of bushes flowered much too early, only to shrivel beneath the predictable frost, taking most of their crop with it. 

The blueberry fast of 2012 drove me to consider planting my own stock of bushes.  While acres and acres of plants are too much to protect from Mother Nature, three to five would be manageable.  Cloaked in old sheets, blueberry promises would have a fighting chance against unseasonable cold.  I duly added them to my garden wish list.  Knowing blueberries have some special requirements, I asked Bruce for some advice before I made any purchases.  He assured me that blueberries will grow in many different soil textures, as long as they’re acidic.  The Tammens fertilize with ammonium sulfate, a nitrogen source that also acidifies soil, and keep malathion on hand to control the blueberry maggot flies and Japanese beetles.  When asked if he had a favorite variety, he replied, “I wish I had more Nelsons.” 

This year’s crop is running late, so don’t make my mistake and show up too early.  It looks like picking will begin the third week of July, but check before you make the drive.  You can reach them by phone at (815) 458-6264.   The Tammens also keep their fan base informed and up-to-date on their Tammen Treeberry Farm Facebook page and their website,  

Surrender...Not an Option

I have a little obsession with all things Everest.  I read climber biographies, watch documentaries, and peruse climbing websites.  The gutsy insanity and perseverance required to summit Everest – even to attempt it – defies explanation.  Long after their fingers and toes are blackened with frostbite, climbers trudge onward into thinner air, further from warmth and medical attention.  They are fanatically dedicated to accomplishing their goal.  

I am not one of those people.  I succumb to hypothermia in air-conditioned restaurants.  I’ve chickened out on several cross-country skiing trips.  Cross-country is, as you know, horizontal skiing.  I haven’t got a dare-devilish bone in my body.  I’m like the little pillbugs we dig up in the garden.  Braver insects try to escape, or bite, or poop, but the pillbug curls up in a ball and hopes for the best.  We just don’t deal well with obstacles or conflict. 

Beans under attack
And weeds pose a constant conflict.  Up until last week, this little pillbug was kicking some weed butt.  Then the rain came, and I didn’t work in my garden for a few days.  By the time I returned, the hostile takeover was in full swing.  The weeds had the upper hand, snaking through the strawberries and clutching at the cabbage. 

I’ve seen similar ambushes played out a hundred times in movies.  Imagine with me, if you will, a small band of patriots traveling across a plain.   Suddenly they are  surrounded by squadrons and legions and hordes of the enemy.   Depending on the genre, it could be war-painted Comanches hoisting tomahawks, Ninja warriors hurling shooting stars, robotic droids sporting laser cannons, or prickly thistles going to seed.  Okay, the last one hasn’t hit the big screen yet, but every other genre of war movie features this plotline. 

This is what horticultural war looks like at my house.  The weeds bring the big guns.  Their seedheads are loaded with multiple rounds.  Their root systems are primed for survival behind enemy lines.  They go about their work twenty-four hours a day, regardless of weather.  And they’re not alone.  Insects come from miles around to feast on my smorgasbord.  My defensive maneuvers are limited to my tools (good), range of motion (diminishing) and my free time.  Between my gig as a kiddy chauffeur, sous chef, and laundress, that doesn’t amount to much.  Three kids make summertime a Honda-driving, sandwich-stacking, towel-washing extravaganza. 

Reinforcements have arrived
In years past, my vegetables disappeared behind a grassy curtain by the Fourth of July.   I still managed to pluck produce from their grasp, but that kind of harvesting is best done with combat boots and a machete.   But this year, I want to pick tomatoes in my flip-flops.  I want to see zucchini from a distance.  And Hollywood makes me believe this is possible.

In the movies, the underdogs always emerge from the carnage with
just a few well-placed, appearance-enhancing scars.  They manage to make nearly-dying look good.  I’ve never had a near death experience in the garden, but its not uncommon for me to come out looking like I was buried alive in there.  Soil is just attracted to me.  Magnetically, maybe, I don’t know.  It’s a gift.

It may be staged, but the sermon preached from the pits of the cinematic battlefield is a valuable one: never surrender.  How will I ever know the sweet savor of victory until I’ve stood my ground and pushed against the enemy?  It might not be Mt. Everest, but its challenge enough for me.  And so I plunge in and start pulling purslane, dandelions and grass.  In the words of historic non-pillbug John Paul Jones, “I have not yet begun to fight!”

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

The Uftring Moving Co. headed north last week to help my sister and her family shift their belongings a few miles down the road to a new home.  We packed filing cabinets and canned corn, bug spray and snowboards.  What a kaleidoscope of material fills our homes.  I shudder to think of the inventory our garage alone contains.   

Most of my time was spent in her kitchen, wiping out cabinets and setting up the pantry.  I gravitated more than once to the window overlooking her kitchen sink.  Outside, lay situated the ideal location for a kitchen garden.  I think of kitchen gardens as vintage Americana, but in truth, they’ve grown from French roots.  The French term is “potager”, which when pronounced ala American sounds terrible, so by all means, resist your natural tendency to do so.  The French pronunciation, of course, drips with chic: pote uh zhay.   Like protégé, minus the r.  Just saying it makes me want to start digging.  Potager gardens come in a range of styles, from cottage chic to geometric vogue, but they have one end goal: to be equally attractive and useful. 

Zucchini tucked amongst catmint and larkspur.
 When I was in college, the prevailing design rule for vegetable gardens was concealment.  Behind some trees, behind a fence, behind a hedge: the key word being ‘behind’.  For some reason, they were considered unattractive.  My own vegetable garden has been concealed, since its inception, behind the garage.  The purpose for putting it back there was one of practicality: every square foot of our main yard is prime real estate for kid and dog traffic. 

When we bought our first house, the realtor droned on about “Location, location, location.”  Fifteen years later, his nasal inflection is still tattooed on my auditory nerve.  Annoying as he was, there was truth in his hard sell.  I attribute at least part of my vegetable garden’s history of hideousness to “location, location, location”.  Hidden vegetable gardens quickly fall victim to two vices: poor water access and loneliness.  Out of sight, out of mind adds up to overgrown weeds and under-cultivated plants.  Add to the equation a distraction-prone mind, and a hidden garden falls off the radar with ease.  Dirty clothes, dirty dishes, hungry offspring, Pinterest, HGTV, bags of Chips Ahoy, and yes, even the husband are all front and center with their needs/temptations.  The ‘behind’ garden just can’t compete.

In the literary classic, The Secret Garden, hidden horticulture made a wonderful escape for two bored children trapped in 19th century England, but in my whiz-bang  21st century world, it makes for good intentions gone bad.  Which brings us to a horticultural catch-22: are vegetable gardens hidden because they are ugly, or are they ugly because they are hidden?

One day, when my kids have moved away to universities or yards of their own, I’ll have a full blown potager of my very own.  But for now, I hope to live vicariously through my sister’s landscape.  When I shared my plan with her, she was hesitant, wondering if it was too late to plant.  With a garage full of boxes, I’m sure a potager was not at the top of her to-do list.  But I was undeterred.

“Of course it’s not too late to start your kitchen garden!”

Plenty of vegetables come to full production within a short season.  Look for seed packets listing maturity dates of less than 75 days.  If you planted today, you could be harvesting cucumbers, beans, peas, summer squash, lettuce, spinach, Swiss chard, beets and radishes throughout August and September.  Some cool season seeds, such as peas, benefit by being planted later for a cool fall harvest.  By purchasing nursery plants, you can still enjoy homegrown tomatoes as well.  And that makes your first French potager, tres bien!  

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A Tweet Retreat

Our little House Wren

Outside our dining room window thrives a small nature preserve.  All things wild flourish there.  My attempt at growing domesticated plants in the same soil and microclimate requires considerably more effort: fertilizing, watering, mulching, pruning, dividing and weeding.  Shwew…I’m tuckered out just making the list.

Shielding Brownie's eyes from the sun,
Ryan 'The Parasol' Uftring
Domestic creatures can be so demanding.  Inside our home, roosting in a bed of pine shavings, lays Brownie, our elderly guinea pig.  For four years, she has relied utterly on our care.  This refined rodent exhibits the discerning palate common to many species of domestics.  Any diversion from her preferences results in a chorus of loud, squeaky oinks.  Serving her from the bargain 8-pound-bag of hay pellets is considered treason.  If she can’t detect a dehydrated carrot or corn kernel in her food dish, she sounds the alarm.  And all those carrots and corn kernels create a lot of output, which must then be cleaned up, which brings me to my favorite low-maintenance pets: wild birds. 

I’m not sure which of my personality defects is most inclined to bird-watching: laziness or frugality.  There are no cages to clean.  No pine shavings to purchase.  If I forget to feed them, they simply fly somewhere else for lunch.  They don’t berate me with squawks and pecks.  And the view!  We literally have a rainbow of birds in our yard throughout the year.  Red Cardinals and purple Finches, orange-bellied Robins and flaming Baltimore Orioles, yellow Gold-finches, green iridescent Hummingbirds, bossy Blue Jays and sweet Indigo Buntings.

A few years ago, I couldn’t tell a chickadee from a sparrow.  My children would ask me to identify birds in the garden, and I was at a loss.  So, I purchased a small bird book.  You may have a similar manual in your house, just your run-of-the-mill bird field guide.  But yours isn’t the same as ours; not exactly.  Ours has been ‘accentuated’.  If you turn to our Eastern Bluebird page, you’ll find a picture of a dutiful mother, bringing breakfast to her young.  The bubble extending from her bug-bearing beak says, “This tastes gross.”  

The 2nd grade handwriting is one of several glaring clues that this commentary is not original to the book, but it does add a certain something to it.  On the Osprey’s page, a predatory bird glares down with the eyes of a skilled killer.  A curly mustache extends from either side of his beak, granting a little comic relief in the face of his clearly homicidal intentions.  But just to make sure you don’t take him too lightly, the mustachio-maker scrawled “I will eat you” beside his head.  If you’re now feeling a little underwhelmed with your lackluster ‘conventional’ bird book, I’m sure my adolescent artist would be willing to embellish it for a nominal fee. 

Aside from giving your children graffiti-prone material, why would you want birds around?  First and foremost, they’re fun to watch.  Hollywood’s red carpets don’t have anything on these flashy personalities. Decked in beautiful colors, they bear vivacious attitudes to boot. There are cowards and daredevils, lovebirds and bullies, selfless parents and selfish seed stealers.  A set of binoculars reveals miniature soap operas unfolding throughout our nature preserve.  Place feeders close to windows so you can watch the drama unfold all year long.

Secondly, they eat bugs!  Summertime in Illinois is the ideal environment to throw a BBQ party for bug-eaters (Bring Birdseed Quick).  Blue Indigos, barn swallows and purple martins will feast on the #1 summer pest: mosquitoes.  Also on the bird menu: grasshoppers, beetles, flies, grubs and aphids.  They won’t eradicate them completely from your yard, but they lend a threatening atmosphere that encourages pests to go elsewhere. 

Third, they educate.  This self-proclaimed birding blockhead can now differentiate between a Brown Thrasher and a House Wren.  My 92-year-old grandma stays sharp by trying to learn something new everyday.  Keeping our minds engaged and involved in the environment benefits us as well as the wild world we live in.  

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Glove Love

My gloves are shot.  The seasons have not been kind to them.  Nor have I.  They’ve sloshed through mud in May and scraped up clay in July.  After countless fencing matches with thistle, barberry and roses, they’ve succumbed to a well-deserved retirement.  If there were such a thing as a spa resort for gardening equipment, I would give them an all-expenses paid trip.  They’ve earned it.

Hand-eye coordination not being one of my strengths, these gloves have saved 10 precious appendages from many a misdirected slice of the soil knife.  They braved interior demolition zones as well.  As if they had a choice.  My wardrobe doesn’t differentiate between gardening and remodeling; overachieving accessories do double duty.  They’ve kept my hands splinter and tetanus shot free after hours of hauling lath, plaster, glass and drywall. 

I’m not sure which job is more treacherous, frankly.  This isn’t, as I’ve said before, a botanical oasis.  Our garden dirt surrounds a 95-year-old home.  An afternoon cultivating vegetables is synonymous with ‘archeological dig’.  Apparently, burying your garbage was the thing to do some years ago.  Every pull of the tiller, dig of the shovel and spring thaw unearths new treasures: mostly broken glass and slate, but we do stumble upon the occasional vintage pop can, rusted metal tool, and broken ceramic bowl.  Gloves and boots earn their keep around here in a hurry.  One of these days I’ll dig up an old Folgers can with a fortune in it and buy 10 unblemished acres.  In the meantime, I’ll just keep my safety gear handy.

When I first received these - my favorite gardening gloves in the universe - I set them aside in a drawer.  Compared to my heavy-duty leather and canvas sets, they seemed ridiculously thin and impractical.  Smooth, white goat leather with a flimsy woven green hem.  They looked like something Martha Stewart might display on a shelf.  I don’t know how long they languished in the drawer.  I can’t remember the first time I decided to use them, but I do know that no glove ever matched up afterwards.  Like a person who needs bifocals, I needed two sets of hand protection.  I was constantly taking my bulky gloves off to handle the intricate plucking necessary in weeding.  The au natural manicure was staining my fingers and clogging my nails with Illinois topsoil.  I’m no princess, but I can do without the green fingers.  These gloves changed all that.  The thin goatskin allowed me to pinch and needle into the dirt like I’d never been able to do before. 

Years of watching nature videos and visiting petting zoos have taught me that goats are tough old biddies, even the young ones.  However, I mistakenly thought their brawn was concentrated in their rock-hard craniums.  Apparently other goat parts are tough too.  Their leather may be thin, but it’s like a forcefield for fingers.  It stood up to the aforementioned thorns, sharp tools and hazardous ‘discoveries’ like a champ.  When the seams finally started popping, I doctored them with duct tape sutures.  No way was I tossing these on account of a few holes.  They were irreplaceable. 

Last week, we were killing time at Menards while our gallon of satin latex was tinted ‘Sheet Metal’ gray (old houses = endless projects).  On a whim, I swung past the glove department to contemplate the next generation of hand protection.  The duct tape was beginning to give up and I knew the inevitable end was in sight.  Hanging beneath a $10 price tag was a glowing white pair of goat gloves with a flimsy green woven hem.  I blinked.  Was I dreaming?  The sound of my children arguing over cart-pushing privileges confirmed that this was indeed reality.  I swooped my ten dollar prize into the cart and broke up the squabbling offspring.  There was no time for arguing.  There was barely enough time to pick up the paint.  The archeological dig was calling and I was ready for it.  

Monday, June 3, 2013

This Week in Our Garden

Cilantro seeds sprouted.

Basil babies went from cotyledons... true leaves.  I can almost taste the pesto.

Tall, dark and handsome edged

 Along with his canine sidekick...

Mama sported her mohawk.  
Nothing like a crimson tinge to show it off.

I rolled back a carpet of Creeping Charlie.

And the mulching is almost done.
Thanks to Snider's nursery!

A few happy bloomers
Carolina Lupine

Pink Lemonade Honeysuckle,
Siberian Iris and Catmint


And the hummingbirds FINALLY discovered our Centranthus. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Delicate Daredevils

If you want to spice up your next fiesta, try discussing the topic of immigration.  Nothing breaks through the crust of dry conversation like a political hot potato.  Immigration has been simmering and spouting on America’s back burner since the Statue of Liberty bid the tired, poor, huddled masses to come.  We didn’t become a ‘melting pot’ without a little heat, after all.  I am not looking to light a fire in this column, but I do want to draw your attention to another population of undocumented immigrants that is literally flying past border security. 
Monarch sipping Zinnia juice.
Note the tattered wings.

Monarch butterflies flash their tiger-colored wings over the Rio Grande with nary a thought to green cards or governments.  They are embarking on a journey no reasonable, safety-conscious human would attempt: 1,600 miles on parchment-thin wings.  Without so much as a map or American Express card, these delicate daredevils take off into the vast unknown.  What could tempt them to throw caution to the wind?  Appetite, of course. 

They’re coming for a North American delicacy: Milkweed (Asclepias sp.).  When mama Monarch finally rests her weary wings on a Milkweed plant, she has more than nectar on her mind: she’s been carrying a load of progeny and it’s time to deliver them.  She lays her eggs (up to 400!) directly on the leaves.  She’s catering to her finicky offspring: milkweed is the only food they’ll eat.  Flattering as this singular affection may be, the plant does not take larval nibbling lying down. 

The Milkweed/Monarch saga is a twisted plot worthy of a James Bond flick.  Milkweed, loaded with booby-traps, carries a license to kill.  Flowing through its veins is a thick, latex sap.  One poorly placed larval bite can open a veritable floodgate of white glue.  Monarch larvae are easily overwhelmed by the surge of goo: those that don’t drown in the flux, often find their mouths glued shut.  Less than one third survive the namesake sap.  Those that live to die another day, learn to carefully deliver a kill bite: they drain the main vein, leaving the foliage defenseless to their feasting. 

Monarch vs. Milkweed.  The battle begins.
Sap is not Milkweed’s only line of protection: its stems and leaves are laced with cardiac glycosides, a toxin capable of killing small vertebrates, like our twitch-whiskered, cottontail friends.  This protection does not slow the Monarch.  In fact, it acts as a backhanded blessing.  The toxins, while not lethal to the butterfly, accumulate in its body, making it unpalatable to predators. 

After months of indiscriminant pruning by ravenous caterpillars, the plant gets the last laugh.  Fresh-from-the-cocoon Monarchs waltz through pollen as they slurp sugary nectar through their proboscis.  Fluttering from blossom to blossom, they jumpstart seed production for the Milkweed’s next generation. 

Last summer I watched a flock of migratory Monarchs settle into the neighbor’s Maple for the night.  The sun had set, but the branches flared to life as orange and black wings flexed open and closed in the dusky light.  I look forward to catching a glimpse of it this year, but Monarch populations are declining as their wild milkweed habitats are disappearing.  You and I can have a directly impact on their survival:

·      Being careful not to destroy stands of Milkweed is essential.  When they are gone, the butterflies will be gone as well. 
·      Incorporating host plants in our landscapes, like Asclepias tuberosa, Butterfly Weed, provides new habitat for Monarchs.  With its bright orange flowers and drought tolerant nature, it’s an Illinois natural. 
·      Avoid pesticide use.  Insecticides kill butterflies and herbicides kill milkweed.    

Pretty pollinators make gardens doubly beautiful and keep those flowers and fruits a-coming.  Let’s do our part to keep these south-of-the-border beauties floating through Kankakee County.

Monarch caterpillar on Butterfly Weed

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